“Wonder Woman” is a film with baggage. I’ll go straight to the TL;DR version and say that yes, it’s good. It’s fun. It’s retroactively topical, and at times even a little inspiring. It has fantastic cinematography, some solid performances, and a script that (sort of) makes sense. It accomplishes everything that’s needed from a Comic Book Movie: a great, meaty beef patty of spectacle, topped with an earnest slice of melted cheese, and two great buns. When it’s over, we want more. We now have the first female superhero headlining her first feature film, directed by Patty Jenkins (“Monster”), who also happens to be a woman. If ever there were reason for little girls to tie capes around their necks and invade the boys’ sandbox, it’s “Wonder Woman.” That will be this film’s legacy.
But is “Wonder Woman” good because it’s good, or is it good because it’s, you know, better than those other three DC Comics adaptations Warner Brothers inflicted upon us? “Man of Steel” fell way short of Marvel’s “Iron Man” in terms of successfully launching a shared cinematic universe; but “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” were such aggressively bad films that “Wonder Woman” (and the upcoming “Justice League”) have to be better than just good to prevent the entire franchise from a corporate-mandated partial birth abortion.
Yet “Wonder Woman” is solid, and it’s already lassoed in a rabid female following that stands poised to ensure this film’s success regardless of quality, damn it. The fact that, taken on its own terms, the film is worthy of praise rather than simply “good in comparison to” or “successful because Feminism” feels almost like a relief.
This isn’t Linda Carter spinning in circles while wearing stripper boots and a poofy blue star spangled diaper; this is Wonder Woman: Millennial Makeover Edition. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is the daughter of Zeus, raised as an Amazonian warrior on the paradise island of Themyscira. She’s a dangerous and feline pin-up model in barely-there armor, wielding a God-killing sword and a whip-like lasso that forces the truth from her prey while simultaneously launching a thousand S&M fantasies. Her life is spent in preparation for the prophesized battle with Ares, God of War, an event her people have more or less stopped stressing while sunbathing on their secluded island. It’s only once the hidden kingdom is infiltrated by Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a spy fleeing the evil Germans, that Diana is spurred into action. She leaves Themyscira with Trevor to find Ares, whom she’s sure is behind this whole World War I thing. If she can kill Ares, she can end war, both in reality, and as a concept. She’s out to find the personification of a concept (masculine, of course!) and kick him in the balls. If that isn’t simultaneously existential and completely stupid, I don’t know what is.
The entire concept necessitates a complete and total audience buy-in to work; this is true of any fantasy scenario. As such, a lot is expected of Gadot, who is the most exquisite block of wood to ever grace the silver screen. She’s stunningly beautiful, and yet every time she opens her mouth it’s like hearing a computer trying to approximate human speech. The fact that Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, and the rest of the Amazonians mimic Gadot’s accent was clearly a case of realizing that it’s easier for actors to put on a voice than it is to train Gal Gadot to speak like anything other than Gal Gadot.
Every one of the actress’s movements, expressions, or balletic thrusts, lunges, leaps, or parries, is hyper-choreographed. Let’s be honest here: Gadot is a model, not an actress, and as such she’s constantly posing to a ridiculous degree, even when standing still. She’s forever playing to the camera rather than inhabiting the scene, and yet, strangely, defying all logic and reason, it works. It’s somehow fitting that she literally becomes a series of comic book illustrations brought to life, highly detailed and rendered and impossible to look away from. She’s the omega point for all the horny, lonely teenagers that kept the Funny Books in the garage or under the mattress in those long-ago days before the internet, growing up to become comic book writers themselves (or film critics who take these sorts of movie way too seriously).
Unfortunately, what’s missing from the character in this rendition is her four-colored counterpart’s nobility. Gadot’s Diana often comes off as childlike; the obligatory Fish-Out-of-Water sequences when she arrives in early Twentieth Century London are perhaps comic to a fault. She is presented as something of an idiot as she tries on human clothes, coos at babies, and prattles on about her mission to literally, for real, guys, kill war (which is sort of like saying you’re going to kill sunburn). When Wonder Woman is punching bad guys, she’s heroic and cheer-worthy; when she’s declaring her intent to punch a really broad concept, she’s just a dummy in a hot costume who you pretend to take seriously because, dude, she’s hot.
Thankfully, Gadot has Chris Pine as her comedic foil and romantic interest. It’s a niggling irony that, in a production touted as being a woman’s film, it’s the male lead who comes out the MVP. Pine’s natural tendency toward easy humor brings much-needed levity to a story just begging to be laughed off the screen. His pairing with Gadot is in fact the film’s greatest weapon, as the actress immediately becomes the Straight (Wo)man to the male foil; whether you interpret this as playing to Gadot’s strengths, or creating strength by playing to her weaknesses as an actor, is really a Glass Half-Empty/Half-Full scenario. Regardless, it works. They’re fun together.
Yet for any criticism of Gal Gadot as an actress, she looks the part. When Wonder Woman first strides across the battlefield in her full costumed glory, it’s powerful. It’s empowering. It’s emotional not only as pure, inspirational spectacle, but also in its historical revisionism and wish-fulfillment fantasy. We are seeing less a superhero movie than an alternate timeline in which women changed the rules in a man’s game. It’s the story we want to tell our daughters, so we might teach them that they can stand up and fight back, even if they aren’t bulletproof. Comic books and superheroes are nothing if not modern mythology and allegory, expressing heavy ideas in simplistic terms to blossoming minds.
If there’s any major criticism, it’s the ending. Without spoiling the resolution, there’s a narrative chasm just after the climax that makes little sense when one considers Diana’s mission to “kill war” and put an end to mankind’s conflict (HINT: Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, et al.). It feels like five minutes are missing between the final battle with Ares and the bizarre epilogue in which Gal Gadot literally tries to jump out of the movie to beat the crowd to the parking lot.
So does this save the floundering DC Comics Cinematic Universe? The jury’s out on that one; “Justice League” has endured several rounds of reshoots in response to commercial and critical contempt toward previous entries in the series. “Avengers” director Joss Whedon is currently stepping in due to the heartbreaking suicide of Zack Snyder’s daughter. “Wonder Woman” promises hope for this particular shared cinematic landscape, and in its final moments, the dialogue seems to speak to the other guys in spandex: “I can save today; you can save the world.” In other words, step aside, boys, and let the woman show you how it’s done. In this case, she certainly does.
NOTE: Walking out of the preview screening, a female critic declared loudly and self-consciously: “As a woke-ass feminist, I’M NOT IMPRESSED.” I don’t know who she is or for whom she writes, but if there’s a “Wonder Woman” review I want to read and then make fun of, it’s hers.
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Written by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs
Runtime 141 minutes